International Music Spotlight: Ugandan Hip Hop

Those who know my musical taste know I’m a big fan of world music (Putamayo, anyone?) – both traditional cultural music as well as the more modern fusion of ethnic sounds with, say, an awesome dance beat. As such, I’ve decided to start an international music spotlight series with occasional posts highlighting specific genres from specific cultures each time. Off we go!

I’m no expert when it comes to hip hop, that’s for damn sure. But I do know when I hear something I like. And I like a lot of hip hop…and how revolutionary its artists can be. Some of them truly empower their followers with their impassioned lyrics. Some of them are heroes in their communities and fierce activists. Hip hop* is music with a purpose.

*Obviously, I’m referring to the underground (or at least less mainstream) artists whose works are centered around poignant topics like political corruption, poverty, war, HIV, social change etc…NOT mainstream “hip pop” stars who rap about meaningless crap (e.g. money, drugs, sex) but have catchy beats that propel their songs to success in the clubs and on the charts…though those artists certainly have a right to their place in the musical spectrum.

The global hip hop scene could be conceived of as being still in its infancy – at least in terms of large scale awareness. Despite an increasing number of destinations like Flight 808, an international hip hop site/blog, and Nomadic Wax, a “record label, production company and events production company specializing in hip-hop and underground music from around the globe”, most international underground hip hop is, you know, still underground.

Today, I chose to spotlight Uganda, because my aunt has been working in Kampala for several years and it’s next on my wish list of places to travel to.

Ugandan Hip Hop (Lugaflow)

An excellent starting point is this documentary called Diamonds in the Rough:

O’Reilly Radar has a good description of the film, which follows Bataka Squad, a Ugandan hip hop group who raps in their native tongue, Luganda, and uses their art form to raise awareness of local issues, inspire youth and do all kinds of good. Click here for a brief history of the group.

Bataka Squad is a great example of a local group who refuses to sell out and play the kind of music that is popular in favor of staying true to their roots and disseminating their message. Thanks to their perseverance, they have not only garnered a local following among Ugandan youth but have caught the attention of a more international audience ranging from the first African hip hop summit in South Africa in 2005 to the Power to the Peaceful Festival in San Francisco in 2007. They even met Bill Clinton.

After the Artist Activism workshop that I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been thinking more and more about the inherent power of music and its ability to empower people, spread positive messages of hope and change [insert obvious Obama plug here], and educate the international community about local issues.

On that note…

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9 Responses to “International Music Spotlight: Ugandan Hip Hop”


  1. 1 ACtual May 22, 2008 at 10:24 am

    While I enjoyed the exposure to Ugandan hip-hop in this post, I found one of the comments exceptionally flawed in its perception of the genre as a whole. Your assertion that “the global hip hop scene could be conceived of as being still in its infancy – at least in terms of large scale awareness” seems to me a sentence that tries to say two different things at the same time, while permitting you to land on both sides of the fence. There is nothing infant-like about global hip-hop or the global awareness of it.

    It would almost seem that by “large scale awareness,” you are speaking of specifically American awareness. And while the global hip-hop scene is in its infancy in terms of American awareness, the phrase effectively disregards the understanding of what kind of large scale awareness within other countries already exists for hip-hop. It is in its infancy because the majority of hip-hop and rap fans in this country feel the need to understand the lyrics, but overseas, the industry is large and doesn’t need our fan base to augment what is already successful. Our country’s lack of awareness does not speak to the incredible amount of awareness held in other countries. Funny how that last sentence could describe a lot more than just music awareness for Americans.

    Globally, and in the countries that the hip-hop is coming from, it is no more in its infancy (for sound or awareness) than it is here. In most cases, hip-hop found these countries only a few years after it began to grow here in the 80s. Large hip-hop followings and popular hip-hop groups can be found anywhere from Japan to Sweden. A group like Assassin out of France (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin_%28rap_crew%29) has been around since the 80s and puts on huge concerts that garner live album releases, something the seminal Bay Area group Hieroglyphics only recently attempted.

    Loop Junktion and Lunch Time Speaxx are just two artists from an incredibly deep and diverse Japanese hip-hop collective (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Japanese_Hip_Hop_Artists), one that has produced an international superstar in DJ Krush (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Krush) who has found a very solid fan base globally, worked with American hip-hop artists, and is still relevant after 20 years while other American hip-hoppers have faded out.

    OF COURSE the amount of foreign language hip-hop that will be accepted and accessible to Americans is limited. I doubt we will ever see a hip-pop song in French rival a 50 Cent track for radio air-play, or watch club goers bounce to something with Japanese lyrics. How then would they know when to “get low,” “superman dat ho,” or “watch the sweat drip off” someone’s balls? While singer/songwriter and world music often successfully carry over non-English lyrics to a broader American audience, this is due more to the listening demographics of each genre and the pace and complexity of hip-hop lyrics in a foreign language than anything else.

    Most fans of this genre will want to understand the lyrics rather than be challenged by a new sound and words they can’t comprehend. But its hard to argue that there’s any amount of infancy in a genre that has been going for 2 decades and is self-aware enough to be consistently changing with the changing demographics of the country in which it exists(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_hip_hop).

    Your own previous piece on Grime helped shine light on the British hip-hop scene who before Dizzy Rascal (first album in 2003) and Wiley (first album released in 2004) had already produced The Streets (2001). It should be noted that 2 out of the 3 have achieved popular chart status here on US soil. This example from your own post would seem to contradict the perception that the large awareness of global hip-hop does not exist.

    Global hip-hop is alive and well, and well into its post-college life in most places. And more importantly than being mainstream in our country, hip-hop is EVOLVING organically as a music in countries throughout the world. Most started by copying American hip-hop from the 80s and early 90s, but those days are gone and the genre has been morphing into localized and culturally driven sounds like Grime and Japanese hip-hop found worldwide today. Who needs East Coast and West Coast rappers when we have Western European and Eastern Asian rappers? The answer is the American rap listener who doesn’t understand a foreign language and doesn’t care to listen to it.

    The awareness of hip-hop, both underground and pop, in other countries is huge. And given the current state of the mainstream industry in America today, I think most of these countries will feel glad that American awareness, and by extension a shift to a sound that will garner more radio time in America, does not exist to corrupt and Westernize their version of the genre. It is only if you choose to measure “large scale awareness” in an American-centric way that the genre is in an infancy period. And if that is to be the measure, someone is going to be changing diapers for a very long time.

  2. 2 Sandra Possing May 22, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    @Actual

    Excellent points. This is exactly why I’m not an expert:)

    Global hip hop probably is a lot bigger than most of us realize, which is great. I look forward to watching it continue to grow and evolve.

    By “at least in terms of large scale awareness” I guess I was referring mainly to American awareness of non-American hip hop…should have made that more clear.

    And I agree with your observations about American awareness in general. Sad, but true.

    Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately, that maybe you can shed some light on:

    If a badass underground hip hop group starts getting mainstream exposure for whatever reason and becomes popular with the masses, are they no longer considered underground? …Even if they don’t sell out or change their style or lyrics etc?

    If you make it big, are you by definition no longer underground? Or can “underground” refer less to the lack of mainstream exposure and more to their ideals and willingness to stick to their guns and not sell out? Or will good underground artists, by their nature, never become mainstream because mainstream musical taste will never evolve to the degree of being able to truly appreciate good underground music?

    Feels like a catch-22…

  3. 3 rachel May 27, 2008 at 12:52 am

    This is an excellent informative article. Nice to read it.

  4. 4 Sandra Possing May 28, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    @rachel Thanks! Your VMusicBook looks like a great resource.

  5. 5 kingyatta July 5, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Wow! hip hop is everywhere.
    http://www.musichostnetwork.com

  6. 6 derrick July 23, 2008 at 6:12 am

    wat’s up africa this is ur bataka no. 1 fan and to tell u the truth we feelthe mob peaace out!


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  2. 2 International Music Spotlight: Japanese Reggae « .Evolving Music. Trackback on August 13, 2008 at 8:33 pm

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